‘Lies Like Poison’ – Chelsea Pitcher

What a tangled web of lies and deceit these pages revealed…thank you to the publishers, Simon Schuster, and NetGalley for letting me read this prior to its October publication.

Poppy, Lily and Belladonna are our focus for this story and everything hinges on their relationship to Raven, their best friend. It isn’t immediately clear how this group formed or the reason for the dynamics between them – but we know they have a shared history, and would do anything to protect each other.

Our story opens with a body, that of Raven’s stepmother, being found. She has been poisoned with leaves of belladonna placed in her tea. There’s a recipe, written in fourteen year old Bella’s handwriting, on the table next to her that outlines the perfect poison. It would seem that Bella came good on her vow to protect her best friend Raven from his abusive stepmother.

It all seems clear-cut, but then things start unravelling. Poppy – who now calls herself Jack – claims Bella was with her on the night of the murder. The police don’t believe her as Poppy was the one who first went to the police years ago with claims that Raven’s stepmother was hurting him. She is told to go away and think about her story…and determines to work out what happened.

We have our story split into three distinct parts – the truth according to Bella, Jack and then Lily. As we read each story we unpick the various deceits these characters (and those around them) have told, and learn more about the complex background of each.

There was a fairytale quality to this story, and while it focuses on murder it also charts the journey each character has towards acceptance of themselves and their situation. Mercurial in tone, constantly shifting and leaving us with a sense of uncertainty, this was a story that delivered a lot more than it promised. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.

 

‘The Pull of the Stars’ – Emma Donoghue

 

The Pull of the Stars would be a great read at any time, but as we find ourselves still fighting Coronavirus every page felt important.

Set in Ireland, 1918, we focus on a small part of a much wider problem. Still fighting the ravages of war, the effects of this flu sweeping the nation are evident everywhere. We see them through the eyes of nurse Julia, a woman dedicated to her patients on the maternity ward as she goes about her work.

I was struck by the hopelessness of the situation these people were in. The cheery slogans urging people how to fight this seemed so at odds with what they were experiencing due to poverty or a lack of social care that I felt real anger about how such situations are handled (more a response to what’s happening now than through any knowledge of the time).

From the opening pages I found myself fascinated by the little details Donoghue records about life on the maternity ward in the grip of a pandemic. There was so much to find bleak and dispiriting about this – with the characters we encounter having a high death rate – but there were also some beautiful moments that will stay with me awhile. The joy of the singing between Bridie and the orderly, the elation at a healthy birth after a problematic experience and the sense of hope found from the eating of the blood orange her brother brought all the way from Italy and saved for her birthday.

While there was a lot to find frustrating about this, the time overwhelmingly was one of resolve and determination to wring the life out of your time on this world. A good lesson.

Thanks to the author, publishers and NetGalley for sending me an ARC in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘Cinderella is Dead’ – Kalynn Bayron

 

The story of Cinderella is one that everyone knows. But what would you do if the story was a lie? That is the premise of this story, and it was one I was really excited about reading so I was thrilled to get an ARC from NetGalley to read in exchange for my honest thoughts.

Our story focuses on Sophia, a young girl who lives in Lille where everyone abides by the rules set. Every year girls have to attend the Annual Ball – if they are chosen they must be subservient to their husband, and if they are not chosen nobody hears from them again. Though some recognise the problems with such a regime, none seem prepared to stand up to fight it.

Sophia would like nothing more than to live with her childhood friend, Erin. When the time comes for them to attend the Ball, things don’t quite go to plan. Sophia escapes, and takes refuge in Cinderella’s mausoleum where she is found by Cinderella’s only living descendant, Constance. Buoyed by their sense of belief, and hope for a different future, the girls take on the challenge of confronting the King. They take on a journey fraught with danger, where nobody is quite what they claim to be, in a desperate attempt to change the lives of girls in the future for the better.

While the story follows a rather predictable path, there were attempts to offer something new. We got strong female characters who weren’t afraid to stand up for their beliefs. There was the odd twist to illustrate the idea that sometimes people can hide their true desires from others, and there were hints that people can change things if they are true to their convictions. Perhaps the Cinderella retelling offers less than it might, but it was certainly an interesting read.

‘Boyfriend Material’ – Alexis Hall

Boyfriend Material was just what I needed right now…funny, a bit silly, romance in dollops (and not always where you’d expect it) and that feeling that things would work out just the way you knew they would even if there were bumps along the way.

Our story has two rather misguided souls as our central characters. Luc – son of two ex-rock stars, and who has a tendency to disgrace himself in public – and Oliver – lawyer who’s determined to keep control of everything around him. These two have met before, and not got on particularly well. But they are thrown together when Luc needs a ‘respectable’ date for a work event. Oliver agrees to be his fake boyfriend…so it’s just a matter of time before they end up together for real.

A bit like a rather over-the-top TV sitcom, there were somewhat excruciating jokes and some cliched characters. There were scenes where you could pretty accurately predict what was coming, almost down to the jokes. I didn’t particularly like the representation of the wealthy characters (too many cheap shots at something they seemed to have little awareness of), but the lurking irritations were very much on the outskirts of the central story.

Luc and Oliver might be infuriating in real life, but they seemed to bring out the best in each other and I was definitely rooting for them. Don’t expect anything unexpected here and you’ll be happy.

 

‘The Extraordinaries’ – T.J. Klune

The Extraordinaries has a rather unusual take on the super-hero story and I wasn’t totally sure whether we were meant to see this as genuine fantasy, fan-fiction comedy, or some weird hybrid. Elements of this were very funny, the hints of what’s to come in the bigger picture are definitely interesting but there’s a few elements that I feel will make this problematic.
Our main character is Nick Bell, son of a local cop. Nick has ADHD and is struggling since the killing of his mother. He has a close group of friends that he claims are the school outcasts, though their bond is close enough they don’t seem to take much notice of this. His ex, Owen, still hangs around and pushes his buttons – but seems very keen to see how Nick’s best friend Seth reacts. Nick keeps himself occupied by writing fan fiction about his crush on the superhero Shadow Star.
From the outset we see how important the superhero is to Nick. He ends up rescued by him, but then there’s the small matter of Power Storm, his nemesis. We don’t know quite what’s going on (although it doesn’t take long to figure some parts out) but the rapidly escalating violence between these two starts to cause problems.
The focus on Nick means we are, naturally, kept a little in the dark about some aspects of the world-building and events taking place. As Nick learns, so do we. Watching him bounce round causing chaos was funny, but not particularly helpful at times. However, once we get further details of the role certain characters play it certainly offered more interest- don’t want to give anything away, but the revelations about Nick’s mum right at the end certainly imply there’s more to this than we’ve got here.
Unfortunately, the humour and general lighthearted focus was marred by some of the details given and the characters’ reactions. As the son of a cop, Nick gets away with a lot. In light of current affairs and concern about police behaviour, to have him joking about such affairs seems in bad taste. We find out his dad was demoted after punching someone involved in a case. Few details are given, but it adds nothing to this story and seemed a poor decision to feature when so much is being talked about with regard to the behaviour of those in charge of maintaining law and order. I’ve seen a couple of reviews where this feature was picked up on and vociferously decried, so it’ll be interesting to see whether attention is paid to these advance reviews and whether any changes are made prior to publication.
Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in exchange for my thoughts.

 

‘Hideous Beauty’ – William Hussey

Even though one of the characters dies early on, this is a love story through and through. It’s the love story of Dylan and Ellis, but it’s also about the love between friends and the love we need to have for ourselves to really live.

The book opens with Ellis and Dylan making a big coming-out statement at their school dance. There’s a very positive vibe – until we learn this situation has been somewhat forced on them after someone anonymously posted a clip of them being intimate online. It seems they’ll overcome this – but as they leave the dance Ellis seems to be acting oddly. Something has upset him. He is distracted. Then, before we know it, they have crashed and plunge into a local lake. Ellis drowns, and Dylan is convinced someone rescued him but nobody seemed to be around when paramedics arrived at the scene.

Dealing with such grief would be awful at any age, but the doctor who treats Ellis makes a comment that shows even though things may still not be quite as accepting as they could be it’s still a huge improvement on the past. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Dylan struggles with his feelings after this – convinced someone left Ellis to die, so he determines to investigate and try to find out why.

Though there is an element of mystery to this, the fact we don’t really know what happened in the aftermath of the crash means we’re never sure what the mystery is to solve. Strange drawings turn up in Dylan’s mail and they seem to offer clues as to who might have played a part in Ellis’s abrupt change of behaviour.

As we watch Dylan piece together what happened I was very glad he had his best friend, Mike, looking out for him. An odd dynamic but, when it counted, they totally had each other’s back.

The last part of the book, where Dylan finally confronts the hideous truth about what happened to Ellis did come slightly out of nowhere. That’s not to say it didn’t ring true, but it was hard to reconcile the image we’d been given up to this point with the truth.

I liked the fact that Dylan was, eventually, able to start looking as if he would look back on his time with Ellis fondly. At times uncomfortable reading, but there was also a lot of positivity that I found quite uplifting.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Fascinators’ – Andrew Eliopulos

The Fascinators was one of those reads that I’m not quite sure what to make of.

The prologue opens by getting us to see young Liv picked up by a group that we know nothing about and hints at something awful happening before completely switching focus. The story then shifts to a trio made up of Sam, James and Delia. They practise magic and are definitely something of an oddity in their hometown. We don’t know where their magic comes from or why it’s such a big deal to them, and this lack of detail was part of the issue with the book for me.

These characters live in a world where magic is fundamental to the story unfolding for us, yet we are never shown how we come to this position. With the arrival of new guy Denver we can see there’s a shift in the dynamics but it’s unclear just why this comes about.

A key factor in this story is the focus on Sam coming to terms with his feelings for James and how this impacts on their group dynamic. There’s clearly been tension for some time before we encounter the group but we don’t really get to understand this until a lot later on, by which time we’ve probably decided our views on them all and what we want to happen.

In terms of plot, it’s actually quite straightforward – but without really getting a full picture of the world/attitudes to magic it was quite hard to really understand the significance of details until quite late on. Sam was infuriating at times, but the end result was actually quite positive and suggested that his relationship with James could have been held up to closer scrutiny.

 

‘The Gravity of Us’ – Phil Stamper

Cal dreams of being a reporter. He has his life planned out, so it throws him a little when his dad drops a rather major piece of news…he’s applied to NASA to be one of those involved in the planned travel to Mars. This means the whole family has to move from New York to Houston, where their every move will be reported on as Cal Sr prepares for his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

This would be something of a shock to anybody, but for Cal – whose growing fanbase on social media is one of his passions – the threat of not being able to voice his opinions online is not one that goes down well. His mother is scared of moving across country and losing the link she has to her past. However, in the pursuit of such passion their needs are somewhat ignored – this never really gets touched on fully, and it seems like a glaring attempt to sweep some quite important things under the carpet in pursuit of ‘the story’.

I’ll admit to having only a glancing interest in the story of space travel, but the passion and enthusiasm shown for the subject here shone through and drew me in far more than I was expecting. I may never get as excited over ‘space dirt’ as some of the characters we see here did, but it’s clear to see the reverence such a program is held in and how much it means to many. Does it justify so many others having to shelve their dreams, or the costs involved? I’d find it hard to agree with.

A substantial part of our story focuses on the romance between Cal and Leon Tucker, son of one of the other astronauts. Things got set in motion ridiculously quickly, but the developing relationship between them was only a part of the focus. Watching how they worked together to figure out how to support their loved ones actually worked pretty well.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘Date Me, Bryson Keller’ – Kevin van Whye

I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have to think so much about your sexuality, or to be so cautious about your thoughts/feelings. Whatever your views, however, nobody should be forced to come out unless they choose to. Some of the actions in this made me unbelievably cross, and I hate the fact that this will be something people even have to consider.

I’ve read a couple of views criticising this novel for being so similar to some other stories. I can’t comment on that, but I can certainly say how much I enjoyed this story.

Our main character, whose point of view we’re predominantly focused on, is Kai. He knows he’s gay, but hasn’t said anything to either his friends or family. He seems fairly happy in himself, but we learn he’s desperate to head to college so he can be himself. Kai is a character on the periphery of his high school experience, but he finds himself in a rather unusual situation.

This situation involves the school golden boy, Bryson Keller, who’s got himself caught up in what could be a pretty crass scenario. Whoever asks him out on a date each Monday he has to accept, and date them for the week. For reasons I’m still not totally sure about – but it stems from a chance detention and a drama task – Kai ends up asking Bryson on a date. And he agrees.

We follow Kai and Bryson through their somewhat unexpected week. They keep it quiet, and at points I feared this might be because Bryson was going to do something awful. That wasn’t the case, though, and this quickly becomes a tale of two boys finding a mutual love. Almost insufferably cute, it would take a fairly hard-hearted person not to warm to these two.

There’s hints that this will not be plain sailing. I know some might have a worse experience, but when it matters people are generally seen to do the right thing. Kai’s little sister was wise beyond her years and the kind of cheer squad anyone would be proud to have. Plenty to like in this, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’d heard lots about this book over the last few months, and the fictional Evelyn Hugo seems to have created quite a stir. The premise certainly made me curious – I couldn’t imagine what would possess someone to marry seven times – but I was reluctant to start this in case I didn’t feel quite the same way.
From the outset we are spun a story about the woman the world knows as Evelyn Hugo. We learn that her daughter has died and she is going to auction some of her well-known dresses to raise money for cancer charities. For reasons that we are not permitted to know until much later on, reclusive Evelyn agrees to an interview – but she insists on a relatively inexperienced journalist called Monique being the one she’ll talk to.
Though Evelyn holds the cards here, we follow Monique as she meets with Evelyn and prepares to interview her. Upon their first meeting we are told that Evelyn wants Monique to write her biography. We know there’ll be a reason for this, but we don’t get told what it is until we’re truly invested in the situation.
I was intrigued by the press excerpts from the time as they showed the reality of the world Evelyn was part of. We are given Evelyn’s frank account of her relationships and her determination to rise to the top of her profession. We follow Evelyn through her marriages to her co-stars, a well-known singer, a director and her best friend amongst others. We see the price she was prepared to pay for her fame and her feeling of wanting to achieve what she felt she should. What we are told fairly early on is how she sacrifices so much for her true love, the one she has never spoken of until now.
While Evelyn herself was not always the most likeable of characters, she was presented in a way that elicited sympathy. Sometimes she made terrible decisions, but she often made these decisions from a desire to do right by those she loved. I felt quite angry for her and Harry, and so many other characters, that they could not be honest about themselves because of attitudes in the world they inhabited.
Monique was a character that I couldn’t quite fathom. Her interactions with Evelyn allowed us to slowly learn about her life, and the time devoted to her background and situation certainly had me thinking she would be more integral to the story than she initially seemed to be. By the time we have revealed the exact link I was imagining all sorts. The revelation certainly justified Monique’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Evelyn, and it made sense of her actions towards the end.